Here is the digest I made of the recent libel conviction handed down by the Supreme Court in Fermin versus Court of Appeals (March 28, 2008):
If the utterances are false, malicious or unrelated to a public officer's performance of his duties or irrelevant to matters of public interest involving public figures, the same may give rise to criminal and civil liability
Fermin versus CA
On complaint of spouses Annabelle Rama Gutierrez and Eduardo (Eddie) Gutierrez, two (2) criminal informations for libel were filed against Cristinelli Salazar Fermin and Bogs C. Tugas before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Quezon City. Fermin was charged being the publisher of “Gossip Tabloid” while Tugas was editor-in-chief.
The Informations quoted the portion of the article complained against which was published on June 14, 1995, which read:
"MAS MALAKING HALAGA ANG NADISPALKO NILA SA STATES, MAY MGA NAIWAN DING ASUNTO DOON SI ANNABELLE"
"IMPOSIBLENG NASA AMERIKA NGAYON SI ANNABELLE DAHIL SA KALAT DIN ANG ASUNTO NILA DU'N, BUKOD PA SA NAPAKARAMING PINOY NA HUMAHANTING SA KANILA MAS MALAKING PROBLEMA ANG KAILANGAN NIYANG HARAPIN SA STATES DAHIL SA PERANG NADISPALKO NILA, NAGHAHANAP LANG NG SAKIT NG KATAWAN SI ANNABELLE KUNG SA STATES NGA NIYA MAIISIPANG PUMUNTA NGAYON PARA LANG TAKASAN NIYA SI LIGAYA SANTOS AT ANG SINTENSIYA SA KANYA"
Fermin raised the defense of press freedom. She admitted to having a close association with congressman Roilo Golez and Paranaque Mayor Joey Marquez, and that she used her skills as writer to campaign for them during the 1995 elections where Eddie Gutierrez, was also a candidate for congress running against Golez.
Fermin also argued that to sustain a conviction for libel it is mandatory that the publisher knowingly participated in or consented to the preparation and publication of the libelous article.
1. Whether or not Fermin can validly raise trhe defense of press freedom.
2. Whether or not as publisher she is liable for libel.
1. Fermin cannot validly raise the defense of press freedom.
If the utterances are false, malicious or unrelated to a public officer's performance of his duties or irrelevant to matters of public interest involving public figures, the same may give rise to criminal and civil liability. While complainants are considered public figures for being personalities in the entertainment business, media people, including gossip and intrigue writers and commentators such as Fermin, do not have the unbridled license to malign their honor and dignity by indiscriminately airing fabricated and malicious comments, whether in broadcast media or in print, about their personal lives.
Neither can petitioner take refuge in the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press. Although a wide latitude is given to critical utterances made against public officials in the performance of their official duties, or against public figures on matters of public interest, such criticism does not automatically fall within the ambit of constitutionally protected speech.
2. Fermin, as publisher is guilty of libel, whether or not she had actual knowledge and participation, having furnished the means of carrying on the publication of the article purportedly prepared by the members of the Gossip Reportorial Team, who were employees under her control and supervision. It is worthy to note that Fermin was not only the "publisher", as shown by the editorial box of Gossip Tabloid, but also its "president" and "chairperson" as she herself admitted on the witness stand. She also testified that she handled the business aspect of the publication, and assigns editors to take charge of everything. Obviously, Fermin had full control over the publication of articles in the said tabloid. Her excuse of lack of knowledge, consent, or participation in the release of the libelous article fails to persuade TEAcCD
Instead of the penalty of imprisonment of 3 months 11 days to one year 8 months and 21 days, the Supreme removed the penalty of imprisonment (pursuant to Administrative Circular No. 08-2008) and imposed a fine of P6,000 each. But the Supreme Court slapped Fermin with moral damages of P500,000 each private complainant.
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